So What’s the Role of A Writer?

Orwell and Didion seem to agree that a writer must have a certain confidence, or maybe even arrogance that makes them believe that what they have to say is worth the time of others, and that it deserves recognition. The “I” is being imposed upon the reader, and with it, a perspective and a message. The writer is egotistical, self-centered and vain, and is really only publishing his or her work for attention.

Despite this recognition of the seemingly bossy and assertive “I” that writers impose, Orwell and Didion seem to think that there are circumstances in the world that require the commentary of the writer—circumstances whose affects might not be immediately evident to all of society, and that need to be discussed, analyzed and criticized. Having a political purpose and an historical impulse, as Orwell notes, seem to be the driving force of the writer in these scenarios.

So if we push selfish tendencies aside, what should the motivations of a good writer be? It seems as though Didion would agree that a brilliant piece of writing is not the result of personal commentary of a writer. Her perspective on the role of the writer resonates with me when she discusses imagery: “The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture…It tells you. You don’t tell it.” Intense observation of detail is something that I think makes a good writer, and allowing for a situation or an event or an object to speak for itself. This is what it seems Didion is saying.

Writers are, in a sense, the medium through which the lifeless and the mute reveal their story. They are listeners and observers before they are writers. They may have motives that aren’t entirely benevolent—as all humans do. What distinguishes their work, however, is what they want it to ultimately accomplish, and the different voices and perspectives they invoke to reveal that truth.

2 thoughts to “So What’s the Role of A Writer?”

  1. Though you summarize the thoughts of Orwell and Didion really well, I am left wondering how much of this you agree with. Do you think that writing is an egotistical and vain process? If so, does that mean all writers are self-involved? I enjoyed the talk about the truth at the end of your post and I wish that you would have discussed it even more. They wish to reveal the truth and that is the truth of things from their perspective, but how does this tie in to their selfishness? If writers are purely observers, could they be considered to be performing a service to other non-writers? Are they helping out others by telling them what they cannot see?

  2. I don’t think that focusing on the level of selfishness a writer has, or analyzing his or her egotistical intentions is important, nor do I feel it’s relevant to answering the question, “What’s the role of a writer?” Like all service oriented professions, personal hobbies, or careers, self-fulfillment is a major component to an individual’s passion and motivation. Must successful writers have a certain level of confidence with their views, and with their capabilities to express them? Yes, and perhaps this causes them to be a bit egotistical. I guess my point was to push back on the implied claim Orwell and Didion make by arguing it is not really the writer’s selfish motivation to impose him or herself (for personal recognition) so much as it is the writer’s desire to convey a message or to share a perspective (having a political purpose and an historical impulse) that more accurately reveals his or her role in society. Yes, some writers are driven for selfish purposes and might have no desire to communicate anything that really contributes to critical civic discourse, but discussing personal motivations is not really productive to answering the question of what a GOOD writer’s function in society has the potential to be.

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